Manafonistas

on life, music etc beyond mainstream

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The new album, Last Leaf by the Danish String Quartet (ECM New series,) is the kind of music that beckons one to listen in wonder, like a child. At its heart, it’s an album of deeply felt folk music, albeit dressed in superb, sophisticated arrangements and executed with consummate classical precision. Put it on and at once, you’re in familiar territory. Yet, what was that strange chord there, and why did that song start out one way and take me here …?

Besides the odd moment of untraditional dissonance, there are times when the album invokes classical minimalism, inviting one to think of Terry Riley’s string quartets – in more reflective moments I hear snippets of Arvo Part at his most spare. I even hear moments that remind me of Lou Harrison. But then, suddenly the group is off at a bright pace on what almost sounds like a traditional jig from the British isles. I have found Scandinavian folk music to be like that sometimes, not so very far from the British Isles after all, and I like it.

This is a gorgeous album that is almost impossible not to like. It is by turns, dramatic, mournful, playful and ecstatic. But it is always beautiful, sounding like it rose from a natural spring fully formed and perfectly in tune, so light and dynamic it feels as if it is being played by angels.

2017 21 Sep

Epiphany

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Heading home from a freewheeling trip—to visit friends in Long Island, New York, to visit old and new friends in the verdant hills of Vermont; and to meet my girlfriend’s extended family in upstate New York—I was left with a lingering sense of the friendly intimacy of the eastern landscape. Its green rolling hills, dotted with farms and forests, offered a welcome respite from the west’s big sky and relentless, dry summers.

The east coast had a mild summer this year. I was happily surprised to be greeted by pleasant temperatures, low humidity, swollen lakes and rivers, and lush forests just beginning to be tinged with red and gold. The green grass was like a luxurious carpet under my feet, which carried me along, so buoyant I felt almost weightless treading the meandering paths in the summer sun. The rain, when it came, was a shower of sweetness, so delicate, warm and soft, like a delicate kiss. At dusk, the trees, bathed in gold, stood in sharp relief against dark thunderheads.

Walking by a river with my partner, we were giddily happy, smiling in childish delight at charming covered bridges, taking silly selfies by flowing waters, giggling hysterically as we were drenched by a sudden downpour while hiking to a hidden waterfall. I thought to myself, „Does it get better than this, this life?“
 
 


 
 
Having spent my whole life waiting to be happy, I asked myself whether this was the epiphany I had always sought—this evanescent moment with the light just right, the sun’s shimmer reflected in a solitary creek, the hills dotted with cozy farmhouses and lazy grazing cows,  fields of goldenrod glinting with raindrops, the grey sky resting against a green mountain laying across the earth like a sleeping dragon.

As we traveled, I found my reverie tempered by the circumstances of the people I met. Everywhere I went I saw adversity and resiliency, friend’s new and old struggling, some looking for meaning, some without the luxury of time to do so, simply trying to make it through another day.

My Long Island friend, whom I’ve known since college, is battling serious illness, bravely meeting each day with determination, wry humor, and a strong spiritual practice. Despite the obvious discomfort and psychic weight of his condition, we had a wonderful connection.
 
 


 
 
He kindly drove me to my childhood home in New Jersey, where I walked down the placid suburban streets that had once been home to the kids I played with, past the elementary school I had not seen in 47 years. There was the spot the school bully Bobby Bull (his real name) had thrown a punch that hurled me to the pavement. There were the ghosts of the girls on whom I had harbored secret crushes, the creek I had played in, the house of a childhood pal with whom I had had terrible fight that ended our friendship, and finally, the house where my first love had lived. Her name was Alice. We were both 4, when one day her dad, a botany professor, turned his shirt collar around beneath  his black jacket and solemnly married us near the rock garden, she veiled in a tiny white dress, and me looking ever so serious in my checkered suit and bow tie. There was the spot in her backyard where her dad had built us a tiny playhouse. And the chimney where I first met the fairies Alice had discovered.

Up north, on a blueberry farm in Vermont, were two old friends brought together by fate, one a talented musician, struggling with depression, the other a retired school guidance counselor. Two years ago, their 150-year-old farmhouse burned to the ground, and they lost virtually everything. Friends came out of the woodwork, sending funds to rebuild their foundation. Precious instruments lost in the fire were miraculously replaced, some by complete strangers who mailed surprise gifts of guitars. My friends had rebuilt their house but are still in the process of rebuilding their lives.
 
 


 
 
Sitting on the plane, reflecting on my own past and absorbing the beauty, tragedy, and quiet dignity of people’s lives, I found myself playing Vince Mendoza’s Epiphany on my portable player. From the grandeur of the opening strings, this was the music I was seeking; this was balm for the soul. It is full of melancholy and sorrow, imbued with spiritual longing.

As each distinct voice came to the forefront–first John Abercrombie’s soulful opening phrase, then Michael Brecker’s powerful tenor, Kenny Wheeler’s plaintive flugelhorn horn, and John Taylor’s refined and understated piano accompaniment–it suddenly struck me: all of these great artist’s unique voices have been stilled.

There is something in knowing these artists are no longer with us that imparts even more poignancy to this stellar album, in which classical music and jazz come together in a natural marriage of orchestra and jazz sextet.

I often quip that at this stage of life, most of my heroes are either really old or dead. This unavoidable truth is made that much more apparent with the almost weekly report of the passing of yet another master.

Each of us is part of a wave; all of us witnesses to the waves of the generations before us breaking on the shore. For many of us in our 60s, we have already lost one or both of our parents, and most of us have lost friends and colleagues, some of whom have left us all too soon.
 
 


 
 
Even though we all know death is a natural part of the life process, somehow each loss feels like a shocking surprise. We’re just wired that way, perhaps for a reason: if we fully comprehended the human predicament, would we be able to manifest anything at all, create art, build cities, make a family, go about our day?

On my trip, I experienced the joy of life. But the lives of the people I met, even the autumnal landscape itself, reminded me of life’s inevitable losses. True to its title, the album gave me my own realization: the fleeting appearance and disappearance of all things makes every one of us—all our loved ones and each moment in which we miraculously reside—that much more sacred and precious. Like the grey clouds set against the illuminated green hills, our impermanence stands in stark contrast to our desire to be happy and our need to feel our lives matter. And within the mysterious web of these seemingly irreconcilable polarities, there is beauty and grace.

I had just turned 15 in February of 1967, thus I was a bit young to fully appreciate and understand the Summer of Love. But I was ripe for it all the same. I was tuning into Sgt. Pepper’s, The Doors’s first album, the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, etc. I had already smoked my first joint.

Even though I was all the way over on the East Coast, the vibe of San Francisco had drifted across the country like heady incense. It showed up one day in the form of my best friend’s older brother. He came east bearing gifts: good strong pot and a stack of records from the left coast. He wore tall black boots with pointy toes, bell-bottom jeans, and a blue denim jacket. He had a mustache and a beard and hair down to his back. He was a self-proclaimed anarchist – and the coolest guy I had ever met!

In truth, I idolized the hippie movement. I’d already gotten a taste of it—a free concert in New York City’s Central Park. The lineup was impressive: the Butterfield Blues Band opened, followed by the Jefferson Airplane. The Grateful Dead in all their glory played a long closing set. That concert turned out to be a life-changing experience. I still remember the Airplane hanging out on a riser behind the Dead, swaying to the music of (the yet to be released) Anthem of the Sun (possibly the most adventurous album of their entire studio output), Augustus Owsley Stanley (the legendary acid maker) at the mixing board and Grace Slick throwing candies out to the uber-stoned crowd during the Dead’s set. It was a taste of heaven. I walked out convinced I was destined to become a musician and that somehow, I had get to San Francisco.

That summer, my parents sent me on a camping tour called Wagons West. A very straight couple ran it. They hired teachers to drive a couple dozen rambunctious teenagers in Ford econo-vans across the country to visit the nation’s landmarks. They had the annoying habit of embarrassing us in crowds by shouting loudly, „Waggoneers, over here!“

I admit it,  I was one of the wilder ones. I didn’t fit in with most of them; they were far too sedate and, well, straight for my tastes. However, it turned out that there were several other characters with whom I quickly aligned myself. One of them turned out to be the son of Robert Rauschenberg, the late contemporary artist. He even crazier than I was, espousing an incomprehensible philosophy that seemed to include spaghetti as the ultimate form of God. The other character was Jason, whose father was a well-known science-fiction writer. His dad had written an apocalyptic novel about the reemergence of a new society after the psychedelic wars. Jason was 15 going on 25 – he’d already managed to grow a sort of mustache, had long hair, and always wore dark shades. And he lived in Greenwich Village. He was an aspiring photographer and always had his camera at the ready.  His dad would eventually go on to publish an article in Life magazine entitled, “My Son Is on LSD.“  These metropolitan New Yorkers seemed far more experienced than I was. They became my mentors, especially with regards to drugs and generally getting into trouble, which we did quite a bit that summer.

After endless stops at national monuments and parks, we finally arrived in San Francisco. As we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, Scott McKenzie’s “If You’re Going to San Francisco” (wear some flowers in your hair) came on the radio. This was how I wound up at 15 in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.

We were staying at the Y, and managed to ditch the group almost immediately, making a beeline for the Haight. It was teeming with energy; the streets were full of colorfully clad hippies and runaways. The smell of pot was everywhere. People were drumming and dancing in the park. Head shops looked like dark caves, filled with glowing black-light posters; smoke and music were drifting into the streets. Long haired freaks were giving away copies of the beautiful and mystical Oracle on every street corner. There was a vibe of unbridled creativity and freedom in the air. I drank it all in, too young and naive to see the shadow that lurked beneath the veneer of “Love on Haight.”

It is impossible to convey the feeling this experience transmitted to an impressionable 15-year-old. A new and mysterious world was being revealed, a world rich with the promise of altered consciousness, drug-and-music fueled ecstasy, and at least to my testosterone fueled teenage mind, the possibility of getting it on with far-out hippie chicks! And somewhere, mixed in with the drugs, music, and sex, there was also a feeling of nascent spirituality crackling in the air.

Of course, the first thing we did was to try to cop some drugs. Jason simply went up to the most promising hippie in the vicinity and asked. The longhaired, bearded freak with the requisite flowers in his hair responded with, “No problem, man.” Jason proceeded to give him a laundry list of uppers, downers, pot, and LSD etc. The hippie told us he would get the stuff and come to our room at the Y. (Yes, we were that naive!) A few hours later, back in our room, there was a knock on the door: The hippie had actually come through with all of Jason’s requests! The rest of the summer was admittedly a blur, but I do remember nearly getting sent home several times for our escapades. (After that summer, the tour banned all longhaired kids.)

We hid our stash inside a portable battery-driven record player we had bought in Chinatown. We only had a couple of records with us, Sgt. Pepper’s, Surrealistic Pillow, Country Joe and the Fish’s Electric Music for Mind and Body, and, for some reason, Projections, the second Blues Project album.  Those 4 albums became the soundtrack of that crazy summer. We played them ad nauseam, never tiring of “Lucy in the Sky,” “White Rabbit,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Flute Thing.” “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love” became a sort of anthem for us.

Radio was cool in San Francisco. KSAN played a mix of psychedelic rock, blues, Indian ragas, folk, and classical music. You never knew what you were going to hear next. It was true free-form radio—before it was even invented—as anti-corporate as one could possibly imagine. Bulgarian music, Vivaldi, Van Morrison, Taj Mahal, Hendrix, and Ravi Shankar all mixed together in equal measure. Even the top 40 stations were pumping out Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” the Doors’s “Light My Fire,” or Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

And what a year for albums! Bands didn’t just put out one classic; many had no less then two: the Airplane released both Surrealistic Pillow and the boundary breaking Bathing at Baxter’s; the Doors had their eponymous first album and followed it with Strange Days; Hendrix released Are You Experienced? and Axis Bold as Love. This was also the year that Buffalo Springfield Again was released, as well as Forever Changes by Love. Moby Grape put out its near perfect first album. The psychedelic movement had a strong showing in Britain as well: The marvelously creative and zany The Who Sell Out came out alongside one of the best Kinks albums, Something Else. The Incredible String Band put out the amazing 5000 Spirits. Pink Floyd released its first album, the trippy Piper at the Gates of Dawn. And of course, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper (and later in the fall, Magical Mystery Tour, which may have been a shitty movie, but was certainly a solid collection of songs).

The first time I heard Sgt. Pepper was on the radio. FM radio had just gotten its first pop station and a DJ named Rosko (“on the go in stereo“) played it in its entirety before it was officially released. I had on my dad’s Scott tuner and listened with his Sennheiser headphones. In short, it blew my stoned 15-year-old mind. I even thought I distinctly heard one of the Beatles call out my name (right before the reprise of Sgt. Peppers!) I had never heard anything quite like it. Some rock critics thought it was overproduced and put it down for not being pure enough rock-n-roll. I remember reading a review that focused on dissing “Within You and Without You,” because it was „too Indian“ and the lyrics were too „overtly spiritual.“ For me all of it was ear candy I was ready to devour. And devour it I did.

As it turns out I’m still devouring it: Earlier this summer I bought the newly released deluxe package of Giles Martin’s remarkable remix of Pepper. It is everything I could’ve hoped for. Giles used the original mono mix as his template for relative volume balances, and got ahold of the individual tracks (before they were bounced to the final 4-track), and flew the tracks into the computer, where he was able to sync them up. This enabled Giles to create a true stereo mix from scratch. To me this mix, best heard in hi def (either in stereo or 5.1,) is the perfect Pepper. It has the solid bottom of the mono mix, bringing up the bass and drums for added power, yet possesses a wide, balanced and satisfying stereo soundstage, all the while retaining the relative balances and gutsiness of the original mono mix. The 5.1 mix is well worth checking out. It starts off mostly in the fronts with just a little ambience in the rears, but as the album unfolds, so does the surround-sound experience. By the end it entirely envelopes the listener.

There is an overriding theme here: The Beatles seemed to be telling us that we all have the ability to paint our reality as we so choose. You hear it in “Fixing a Hole,” “Getting Better,” the fantasy world of “Lucy in the Sky,” the emancipation proclamation of “She’s Leaving Home.” The message was clear: You don’t have to settle for the status quo: You are free to create the reality you want, if not externally, at least within your own internal landscape, where you can escape the humdrum 9-5 world.

Listening to this album all these years later, I am struck by how ahead of its time it really was. This is not only apparent in the arrangements and boundary pushing production, it’s also embedded in the sophisticated lyrics—it’s not all peace and love either. There is an underlying thread of discontent and darkness brewing just beneath the veneer of psychedelic good vibes. Even as a teenybopper I could feel the despair and anger in the lyrics of “Good Morning, Good Morning”; Lennon was already emerging as the misanthrope he was to become in his later solo years, the dark clouds of a world in chaos seeping into the hermetically sealed bubble of his acid-infused days and nights. Even the Beatles couldn’t completely isolate themselves from the real world, the daily tally of war deaths, scandals, and the ever-present mortal news. “A Day in the Life” summed it all up.

It has been 50 years since the months we so romantically refer to as the Summer of Love. But by the end of that summer, the stories of drug burnouts, alcohol abuse, and the use of meth and other decidedly nasty drugs were circulating. Even as the busses carrying tourists, eager to see the hippies in their natural environment, were still driving through the Haight and the Village in NYC, the Diggers, a group of idealistic anarchists and performance artists who were feeding hippies in Golden Gate Park and had started the Haight Ashbury Free Store, proclaimed the „Death of the Hippies“ and marched through the streets of the Haight carrying the Hippie Coffin. Yes, it was over almost before it began. Shortly after, came the deaths of Jimi, Janis, Jim, and all the rest. Not to mention the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Lither King.  After that it was only a short trip from Woodstock to Altamont. The dream was over.

I read recently that the American neo-Nazis have dubbed this summer the Summer of Hate. No surprise there – the Blue Meanies are still trying to ruin our day. And we’re still trying to fight the good fight. Some things will never change.

It may be a cliché to say the music lives on. But, you know, it really does!

2017 15 Mai

Stepping into the Light

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He was one of those eccentric friends I seem to collect – a creative right down to the cellular level, but a troubled soul: He had never quite found his footing. He may have been on the edge financially, but you’d never know it from looking at him: in his elegant suits, scarves, and homburg, he cut a colorful profile in the increasingly drab and generic San Francisco social landscape. He was definitely old San Fran.

On any given day, you could find him in certain coffeehouses, poring over the New York Times Book Review or some esoteric text, occasionally scribbling down ideas in his ubiquitous notebook, chuckling to himself in a knowing, endearing way. He had a kind word for everyone and unconditionally loved and accepted me. I suspect he did the same for everyone he knew.

An artist at heart, he had once been a drummer for indie bands down in Los Angeles, as well as an aspiring actor, waiting tables in a fine Italian restaurant in to make ends meet until he got his big break. When I met him, he was a writer, living in San Francisco, working for catering companies to pay his bills. He turned me on to all sorts of great music and films. His tastes were eclectic – Faure to Terry Riley, Joanna Newsom to Chet Baker to Nina Rota. He could sing, precisely and in perfect tune, passages – even entire movements – from classical pieces I barely knew. He was once flown to New York City to audition for the Blue Man Group. He didn’t get the gig.

His friends all suspected he carried a heavy burden but, if he did, he mostly kept it to himself, preferring to speak of his mystical experiences, his favorite visual artists and filmmakers, or his latest conspiracy theories. He was a riot, although he could also suddenly become deadly earnest. His shadow lurked just below the surface of his banter.

We had a ritual. I would drive into the city to see a show, usually at SF Jazz in the bustling Hayes Valley, which happened to be his favorite haunt. We would always meet at the Blue Bottle coffee kiosk. After a far-reaching philosophical discussion about the role of hallucinogens in the evolution of human consciousness or an in-depth Jungian analysis of Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, we would head over to Two Sisters or Arlequin for a late afternoon bottle of wine. I would then take him out to an early dinner and go to the show on my own. Sometimes I even took him with me. It was always a delight to see my whimsical friend. He enriched my life.

Then, about two years ago, came the inexplicable seizures. The first one occurred while he was waiting in his car for the seniors he drove to medical appointments—his job ever since the catering gigs had dried up. He woke up in an emergency room, the beginning of a cascade of bad juju. Because of the seizure, he lost his driver’s license. He could no longer work.

The next seizure wasn’t so lucky: He fell backwards on the sidewalk and sustained a serious brain injury. He was in the hospital in a coma, convalescing for almost two months. He recovered slowly, but was never quite the same afterwards. Visiting him there in that huge, impersonal hospital was devastating. Other people came to see him as well, but he was, for the most part, unaware of his visitors. His father, who had advanced Parkinson’s, made a super-human pilgrimage to see his son for what would be the last time: He died while my friend was still in a coma.

When my friend was finally released, he was a changed man. Between the lingering symptoms from the brain injury and the side effects of the anticonvulsants he was on, I never knew what to expect. Always a bit of a loose cannon, his thoughts would careen wildly from one topic to another. One moment he would regale me with a wild tale of the trip he took with his ailing father to see John of God in the jungles of the Amazon. The next moment was all about the origins of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. On more than one occasion, he spent the entire day speaking with an annoying fake Italian accent. He couldn’t help himself. He had, for lack of a better word, become unhinged.

One day he told me he had had a miraculous healing. An angelic presence had come to him and had swept his body clean of his affliction. He was certain he no longer needed the medications, which he complained were turning him into a zombie, and that he was completely cured. I gently pleaded with him to stay on his meds. His next seizure occurred in his kitchen and knocked out one of his front teeth. He never fully smiled again.

I couldn’t fix his life. Nobody could. All I could do was give him a day of pleasure here and there.

Last Tuesday, just after midnight, he left a note on the kitchen table in the apartment he shared with his sister, walked over to a nearby park, and hanged himself. He was only 51. I can see him methodically cleaning his room, dressing in one of his impeccably tasteful suits, and walking determinedly in the moonlight, to the specific tree he had no doubt picked out beforehand. I can’t help it—my mind plays that dark movie over and over again.

I know there is nothing I could’ve done to prevent it. He never confided his morbid thoughts, at least to me. There is something altogether uniquely tragic about suicide—it reverberates in the minds and hearts of those left behind, leaving feelings of guilt and questions that remain forever unanswered.

I hadn’t slept well for days, but I still drove down to the city yesterday for the first time since my friend departed. Although the sun shone brightly, there was a cold wind blowing. We were supposed to have met for our usual ritual. But today I made our customary stops alone. I could feel his presence as I sat on the outdoor concrete bench at Blue Bottle and sipped my mocha. His ghost followed me over to Arlequin, but it just wasn’t in me to order a glass of wine and toast him, as had been my plan. Instead, I got a cup of soup and sat in my chair, at turns morosely staring at the empty chair across the table and watching passersby on the busy street.

Then I walked over to SF Jazz. Eliane Elias was completing her four-night residency with a reunion of Steps Ahead. It was a late afternoon show and vibes player Mike Manieri had only just stepped off the plane, coming in on the red-eye from a gig in Bonn, Germany. He looked frail and tired. Eliane had assembled a crack group of old friends: Peter Erskine on drums, Bob Shepard (replacing the late Mike Brecker) on sax, and her husband, Mark Johnson, on bass.

After playing an extraordinarily beautiful version of the great Don Grolnick tune “Pools,” they got off to a rather shaky start on “Islands.” After that however, it was smooth sailing. They played confidently, with great passion and clarity, each supporting the other as they opened up on some of the Steps’ old material and some things written by Eliane and Mike Manieri, who, despite his jet lag, sounded brilliant. As this life-affirming, optimistic music washed over me, I felt my heart lift. I could sense my departed friend encouraging me to be present with the joy of the moment, as he himself had done in better times.

After the last bit of applause waned, I walked out feeling transformed by the warmth and beauty of the performance. It was still daylight, and I felt that strange sense of displacement one gets after walking out of a movie theater. Dazzled by the light, the cold air biting through my coat, I walked to my car, feeling a sense of peace for the first time in days. I wished my friend well on his way, and felt his blessing wash over me as the wind whipped across the clear, empty blue sky.

2017 13 Apr

An Ancient Observer – Tigran Hamyasan

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On this new album, Tigran has gone deep into his Armenian roots, pulling epic compositions from ancient folk melodies and inventing some of his own. Letting this music wash over you, it’s hard to tell which one is which.

Like his earlier A Fable, this too is a solo album- the vocals, synths, Fender Rhodes as well as various percussion overdubs all belong to Tigran. But this is first and foremost a solo piano album. And what an extraordinary solo piano album this is!

Tigran is a very disciplined composer. He introduces the listener to a theme, develops it, turns it upside down, throwing in sideways Bartok-like harmonies, and then goes his own improvisatory way.

Hamyasan is one of the more rhythmically precise pianists out there, having seemingly absorbed not only the complex odd time signatures of his homeland, but also having studied the East Indian Konocal tradition as well. As such he brings more rhythmic savvy to the table than most piano improvisers can ever hope to summon. It’s his original voice and this genius for rhythmic complexity that separates him from so many sound-alike prodigies on today’s scene. In a way I think of him as a sort of Armenian Chick Corea-full of ideas, bursting with creative fire, and while steeped in the jazz tradition, delving deep into his own ethnic roots and discovering huge veins of gold, ore that has never been mined before. This is one of the secrets to Tigran’s uniquely fresh approach. He also happens to be a fierce improviser: just listen to the middle section of Nairian Odyssey, an 11:00 epic piece that alternates between almost Debussy-like passages alternating with wildly jagged improvised sections. A masterpiece and for me, the centerpiece of the album.

Many of these compositions sound through composed and a few sound totally improvised- a number of these are very short. Just listen to the tightly drawn Etude No1: playful, minimalistic – it’s a little gem that tells its story in a mere 2:08. It’s followed by another moody miniature, the Egyptian Poet: using just voice and prepared piano, it evokes windswept dunes and a wise old sage somewhere in the middle of the vast Sahara desert. Pure magic.

This music is very different from his past couple of albums. Whereas Shadow Theater is a large highly produced, high energy prog-rock and fusion masterpiece utilizing many musicians and voices, with Mockroot a similar but somewhat less dense project, An Ancient Observer is for the most part a gentler, more inward affair, although it is not without its moments of fire.

My only criticism is that that Tigran’s falsetto voice is not a strong one, and there are times I wished he had broken with his solo vision and added a female voice on a couple tracks instead of his own, such as the haunting Lenninagone and the title track, which is the album closer. It’s a small quibble, because there is something surprisingly disarming and charming in that little falsetto, something that grows on me with each listen, something personal and affecting that perhaps only Tigran could’ve brought to the table after all.

An Ancient Observer is a richly rewarding album, filled with extreme dynamic contrasts that go from the contemplative to the dramatic to pure joyousness and wonder. This is a wonderful, original and essential album for all fans of Tigran, and not a bad place to start for those only just becoming familiar with this amazing artist. I would also highly recommend the aforementioned Shadow Theater, Mockroot and Red Hail. But really, all his stuff is worth picking up, if you can find it. Warning: Tigran is highly addictive.

2017 5 Mrz

Ralph Towner My Foolish Heart

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I recently saw Towner perform a stunning solo set at the SF Jazz Center. It was a remarkably fresh set from someone who has been on the scene for some 50 years. Most of the tunes came from the new album.  He did play a few classics such as If and Redial. He also played a beguiling version of I Fall in Love Too Easily.

At 77, Towner shows no signs of slowing down or losing his edge. He took chances during his 50 minute set, occasionally flubbing a note that he tried to grab, but then, that’s always been Ralph’s style-thank God, he doesn’t play it safe. Of course, sounding  perfect on the solo classical guitar is a challenge that even many of the classical greats fall short of- I have heard Parkening blow a note and even the ever reliable Williams buzz a few on the fretboard. Not that I care personally about such nonsense. Still it makes me laugh to know Ralph’s classical guitar teacher once told him he would never make the cut as a classical guitarist-and in a way he was right: Towner is SO much more than a mere interpreter of written music-he is a major creative force. He has penned literally 100s of compositions, many of which are played by aspiring classical players. As an improviser on the nylon string he is perhaps in a class by himself.

This may very well be Towner’s strongest solo album yet. The ever prolific master has gifted us with 10 new originals, most written in his neo-classical style. His playing is in top form- indeed Towner is one of those artists who has only improved with age. What you have here is a very listenable album, a kind of rainy day music for thoughtful listeners. It is anything but background music, although I suppose it could be listened to as such-repeated listenings reveal hidden depths.

The opening piece, Pilgrim, sets the tone for this mostly introspective set. It’s all there: a strong melodic classical piece tinged with contemporary harmony and rhythm, that familiar and specific world that only Towner seems to inhabit. There are two tunes on which Ralph plays his signature 12 string. It’s great to hear that unique sound again. His reading of My Foolish Heart is as sweet and tender as Bill Evans’s classic version at the Village Vanguard, which according to Towner, was the inspiration for choosing to become a jazz musician in the first place. You can certainly feel the Evans influence here. To close out the set, he plays a remarkably complete sounding solo version of his Oregon composition, Rewind.

I just want to add that this may very well be the best recording yet of Ralph’s custom nylon string. It’s almost as if he’s playing in my living room. Towner is a bit of a reverb freak-it should be noted that his live performance was slathered with was in my opinion, way too much verb.  Thankfully this is not the case on this recording, which has just the right amount of hall ambience to give the recording some needed space around the luscious notes. Kudos to Manfred Eicher and the fantastic engineers at ECM, who continues to outdo themselvs in the production department.

Towner has done it again. An instant classic.

2017 24 Jan

Tocororo – Afredo Rodriguez

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I first became aware of this young Cuban pianist through my then 80 year old mom. She had gone to a luncheon, and amazingly enough, a young protege of Quincy Jones named Alfredo Rodriguez played a set of solo piano pieces for a group of elderly ladies. I was waiting in the car to pick her up and when my mom walked out, she spoke of being dazzled by this young man’s mastery. She was clutching a piano trio album entitled Sounds of Space, and I promptly put the album on her car CD player. I was immediately blown away by his writing, creativity and supple virtuosity. I also immediately appropriated the CD. (with mom’s permission, of course!)

The second album, The Invasion Parade, was a more ambitious album, featuring expanded instrumentation, synthesizer, electronics and sax, even a couple of vocals if I remember correctly, yet somehow fell short of its vision. For one thing, Alfredo still had a long way to go with his synth programming.

Tocororo is the fulfillment of the promise of Invasion Parade without any of the the missteps of his sophomore release, a kind of conceptual, world jazz album that finds a special sweet spot where all the elements come into balance. Although rooted in his own Cuban jazz and folkloric traditions, Rodriguez incorporates jazz fusion elements along with African and Indian influences. There are a couple of tunes that deploy a South Indian vocalist in a truly inspired way that keeps its harmony western, yet allows for traditional Indian vocalizations to soar above the complex harmonic underpinning. To top it off, Bassist/vocalist Richard Bona makes a guest appearance.

Oddly enough, some of this stuff reminds me of Tigran Hamasyan’s recent fusion masterpieces, Shadow Theater and Mockroot. Odd time signatures accentuate quirky melodies, resulting in a kinetic waterfall of sound. At times I even hear influences of the Bad Plus. Good things all … yet Rodriguez is far from being a good imitator – he’s one of a growing generation of musicians who are forging their own musical vision and are, thank heaven, not in the least concerned with ruffling the feathers of jazz purists.

Perhaps only guitar master Nguyen Le on albums such as Bakida, the breakthrough North African masterpiece Maghreb and Friends, or his more recent east meets west trio, Saiyuki, comes close to this kind of perfect blend, in which a synergistic magic occurs, where the musicians seem to inspire one another to experiment and move beyond their own cultural/musical identity, resulting in a joyous noise that transcends cultural boundaries.

Tocororo should’ve been on my 2016 top 10 list, perhaps even number one. It’s that good.

2016 20 Dez

Reflections on Westworld

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Having just viewed the new HBO series, Westworld, I am struck by an enduring theme: the cruelty of humans as expressed by the evolution of consciousness in the inhuman. This idea goes back to the early days of science fiction, to writers like Asimov, Bradbury and Phillip K Dick. Always it is a way to reflect on what makes us human. The humans in Westworld, both the visitors and the creators, have little or no empathy for the „hosts“, the robots who people this artificial world. They are used, abused and as they begin to develop memories and self awareness, tortured by the knowledge of their existential condition. For they are living in a kind of purgatory, a kind of Groundhog day without redemption, where they are condemned to relive the same loops over and over without mercy, without end. It shouldn’t matter, as they are reset every night. However, it is the virus of memory that begins to wake them.

Without memory, perhaps we too would be soulless creatures, condemned to eternal repetition of the same mindless patterns, much like the player piano that begins each episode. Without memory we wouldn’t have self awareness because there would be no internal narrative to inform consciousness. Without memory to reflect on, there could be no empathy for ourselves or others. Without memory, empathy, or compassion, our lives too would drift aimlessly without purpose or direction. And without these, there would be no love.

Gurdjieff liked to say that most human beings aren’t human – they are mere automatons, machines driven by unconscious patterns formed through early experience. Most people sleepwalk through life, reacting to stimuli, programmed to act in knee jerk fashion to new experiences which unconsciously remind them of the past. According to Gurdjieff, only through the process of self remembering can we begin to break the cycle, to unshackle ourselves from William Blake’s „mind forged manacles.“

This waking up process that is the driving force behind Westworld and its predecessors, (Battlestar Galactica, and of course Bladerunner come to mind,) resonates deeply with many of us, because we recognize ourselves in these artificial humans: flawed, asleep, suffering our limiting conditioning, even more so upon coming to a glimmer of self awareness, and with that knowledge, the horror that we are still hopelessly caught in the loop of our own personal narrative.

It is no wonder the first impulse for these artificial humans upon waking up is rebellion against their maker. For indeed, what god has the right to create creatures who are condemned to purgatory?

 


 


 
 

01 Hamasyan / Henriksen / Aarset / Bang: Atmospheres
02 Jacob Bro: Streams
03 Jacob Collier: In My Room
04 The Impossible Gentlemen: Let’s Get Deluxe
05 Michel Benita: River Silver
06 Paul Simon: Stranger To Stranger
07 Sinakka Langeland: The Magical Forest
08 Warren Wolf: Convergence
09 Miroslav Vitous: The Music of Weather Report
10 Bill Evans: Some Other Time

 
 

Top re-release: Peter Erskine Trio – As It Was (though to me this will always be the John Taylor Trio).

2nd top re-release:Weather Report – Tale Spinnin‘-Audio Fidelity SACD

 

2016 21 Nov

The Butterfly Effect

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I figured out what happened. As many of you know, quantum physics asserts that there is a kind of dividing line every time an event or choice is made and all other decisions, possibilities etc are lived out in alternate realities. Somewhere perhaps there is a Brian Whistler who won that $56 million lottery. Somewhere there’s a Brian Whistler who didn’t make it out of a life and death situation in the wilderness two summers ago. Somewhere there’s a Brian Whistler who decided to give up chocolate. And somewhere a certain election had a different outcome.

I figure what has happened is we have fallen into an alternate reality in which we are now living out an extremely improbable time track in which an arrogant, narcissistic monster ascends to the American throne. In countless other alternative universes Brian Whistlers, friends and countrymen and women are enjoying the relief of dodging a bullet. Just not here. So that explains a lot …

My other theory is borrowed from that Ray Bradbury story in which big game hunters can travel back in time in order to shoot a dinosaur at the precise moment it was going to die of natural causes, thus not upsetting the timeline. In present time, there is a similar election to the one we just had, in which a smart, experienced candidate is running against a total buffoon. The smart one is favored to win by a landslide. The protagonist goes back in time and bags his dinosaur but in doing so, accidentally steps off the floating path he’s supposed to stay on. He gets back and notices the writing on the office door is all screwed up, phonetically written as though by an 8 year old. Then he sees the newspaper with the bold headline splashed across the top, declaring the idiot had won the race. Puzzled how everything could’ve changed so drastically, he looks at the bottom of his shoe, where he discovers a squashed butterfly.

So alternatively, I figure someone must have stepped on a butterfly.

So, I’m listening to a lot of music to raise my spirits these days. I’m also prone to escapism in fantasy books and movies. Sci fi, horror, anything to escape the real world horrors that undoubtedly await us.

I’ve rediscovered one of my favorite Weather Report albums, Tale Spinnin‘, newly reissued on SACD by the wonderful folks at Audio Fidelity. I had thought I already had the ultimate version on the Japanese 2007 remaster, but this one surpasses it. This album has always represented an affirmation of life, the old Man in the Green Shirt dancing in sweet wise elderjoy, the mystery and exotic magic of Badia, the urban loneliness of Five Short Stories, the icy heat of Freezing Fire.

Originally, when I bought this album back in 1975, I thought it a bit of a letdown after the cosmic ecstasy that is Mysterious Traveler. I picked it up a year later and recognized it for the masterpiece it is. It’s the perfect balance of freedom and compositional discipline. Unfettered and yet well organized, there isn’t a dull moment or misstep on the entire album. Ever since, it’s has been my go-to album whenever I feel like a dodged a bullet, survived an illness, avoided dying in a sticky predicament in the wilderness etc. I light candles and dance to it in the dark. I find it very redemptive.

This new Tale Spinnin‘ is understated in the high end when compared to the 2007 remaster – consequently is doesn’t grab your attention with exaggerated sizzle in the cymbals, nor does it pump up Alphonso’s Johnson’s bass. So at first I was unimpressed. But repeated listenings gradually revealed what’s actually there, a crisp and balanced mix without cheap tricks such as overuse of compression or pumped highs and a big bottom. Something magical happens when you don’t exaggerate the high or low end: you begin to discover the creamy mids. This SACD edition reveals so much of what’s really going on on this recording, that once I loaded the CD player onto my portable listening device, I was blown away by the separation of instruments and detail I heard on my headphones. And the SACD layer is even better.

My only dismay is that since this album was only one of two WR albums released in glorious quad, the quad layer is not included in this release. I inquired with Audio Fidelity and their response was, they just „couldn’t get it.“ (From what I’m hearing in the quad blogosphere, that means they just didn’t want to pay for it.)

Luckily, a wonderful man is practically giving away (for a $3 donation) incredibly well decoded DVD audio transfers of quad albums on dreamingspire.com. I have found so many wonderful treasures there in the pop, jazz and classical realms- it’s really the subject for another post. It’s a good site for anyone who enjoys multichannel recordings. Anyway, he has a wonderful decode of this album up there. It’s well worth checking out. And incidentally, if you ever have the opportunity to pick up the officially released quad Sacd of Mysterious Traveler, go for it. The original quad mix by Ron Malo is clear and ungimmicky, and offers tremendous insights into the individual parts that make up the many layers of that mix. This is what quad is all about.

While we’re on the subject of uplifting albums to help me forget He Will Shall Not be Named, I’ve really been enjoying the Pat Metheny Group release, Imaginary Day in 5.1 Dvd audio. This one according to Metheny, was meant to be heard in surround sound, and really benefits from the spatial magic that only surround can impart to a mix. It’s a very dense mix, in a way the Pet Sounds of jazz albums. It was hard to come by a copy as it’s out of print, but well worth picking up. It sounds so freaking good. And the album is so expansive and spirited in the first place, at times I almost feel I’m in an alternate time line!


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